Thursday, September 21, 2006

The underwhelming Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

I have discovered, through long and intensive soul-searching, that I would be a lousy pundit for a Sunday morning talk show. The reason is that my reaction to 99% of the topics discussed on such shows boils down to, "This too shall pass."

In other words, claims that individual leaders or individual political performances make a difference leave me, for the most part, unimpressed.

Which brings me to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Multiple sources have Ahmadinejad performing brilliantly while in NYC. Consider the New York Times' David Sanger:

Over the objections of the administration and Jewish groups that boycotted the event, Mr. Ahmadinejad, the man who has become the defiant face of Iran, squared off with the nation’s foreign policy establishment, parrying questions for an hour and three-quarters with two dozen members of the Council on Foreign Relations, then ending the evening by asking whether they were simply shills for the Bush administration.

Never raising his voice and thanking each questioner with a tone that oozed polite hostility, he spent 40 minutes questioning the evidence that the Holocaust ever happened — “I think we should allow more impartial studies to be done on this,” he said after hearing an account of an 81-year-old member, the insurance mogul Maurice R. Greenberg, who saw the Dachau concentration camp as Germany fell — and he refused to even consider Washington’s proposal for Russia to provide Iran with nuclear reactor fuel, and take it back once it is used.

See also Sanger's audio report.

Then there's Andrew Sullivan:

Watching the CNN interview with Mahmoud Ahamedinejad and reading about his meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations reinforces my sense of foreboding about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There's no point in denying that his trip to the U.S. has been a big media and p.r. coup for him. And there is a chilling slickness to him that is as disturbing as it is obviously formidable. The way he deflected questions always back toward the U.S., the way he skilfully used every awkward moment to pivot to the themes his domestic and international audience want to hear, the very image of the informal, mild-mannered, quiet-spoken, constantly smiling serenity: all these represent a very, very capable politician. There is a complete self-assurance to him that suggests he can neither be trusted as a diplomatic partner nor under-estimated as a global foe.
Even's Bernard Gwertzman:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sparred with a high-levelgroup from the Council on Foreign Relations for ninety minutes Wednesday on virtually every contentious issue between the United States and Iran.

There were no obvious changes in the responses given by Ahmadinejad, who has been granting interviews to major news organizations over the past week ahead of his trip to the opening session of the UN General Assembly. But the Iranian leader engaged in a protracted punch and counterpunch with the panel.

“I’m not sure we learned anything new,” said Richard N. Haass, the CFR president, in comments afterwards.

Color me mostly unimpressed. Ahmadinejad gets points for staying on message and not losing his temper. However, I judge whether someone has put in a good political performance based on whether they manage to persuade others of the merits of their worldview.

Looking at Gwertzman's account, I did not see that. Instead, I see Ahmadinejad getting pilloried by Matin Indyk, Brent Scowcroft, and Kenneth Roth -- not exactly a homogenous bunch. Which might explain Ahmadinejad's truculence at the end:

As the meeting drew to a close, the Iranian leader observed, “In the beginning of the session you said you are independent, and I accepted that. But everything you said seems to come from the government perspective.” Haass responded that there had been no advance coordination among the Council participants and that “the aim was to expose you to views of a broad range of Americans. It would be wrong for you to leave this meeting thinking that you heard unrepresentative views.”
Like Hugo Chavez, Ahmadinejad might be able to stoke his own supporters, but he seems to excel even more at creating and unifying his adversaries.

Ahmadinejad too will pass.

UPDATE: OK, I'll give Ahmadinejad credit for sartorially converting Matthew Yglesias.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A valid question running through the comments boils down to, "what if Ahmadinejad gets nuclear weapons?" I agree that this does not fall under the "this too shall pass" category -- however, we need to be clear about terms here. My (limited) understanding of the Iranian power structure suggests that on the nuclear question, Ahmadinejad is a) not the most important decision-maker; and b) holds the minority position of rejecting all compromise. So even if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, I do not think this means Ahmadinejad is going to have his finger on the button.

Besides, I suspect Ahmadinejad has his own domestic troubles.

posted by Dan at 10:15 PM | Comments (40) | Trackbacks (0)

The comparative political economy of The Office

Liesl Schillinger has an interesting essay in Slate comparing and contrasting four different versions of The Office. In addition to the U.K. and U.S. versions, both French (Le Bureau) and German television (Stromberg) have produced variants on the show.

Schillinger's takeaway:

[T]he base-line mood of David Brent's workplace—resignation mingled with self-loathing—is unrecognizably alien to our (well, my) sensibility. In the American office, passivity mingles with rueful hopefulness: An American always believes there's something to look forward to. A Brit does not, and finds humor in that hopelessness. What truths, I wondered, might Le Bureau and Stromberg reveal about the French and German professional milieus?...

if any conjecture could be made about the cultural differences that these subtly contrasting programs reveal, it might be this one: These days, Germans and Americans are doing much of their living in and around their offices, while the Brits and French continue to live outside of them. Here, in broad strokes, are the chief differences. In the British version, nobody is working, nobody has a happy relationship, everyone looks terrible, and everybody is depressed. In the French version, nobody is working but even the idiots look good, and everybody seems possessed of an intriguing private life. In the German version, actual work is visibly being done, most of the staff is coupled up, and the workers never stop eating and drinking—treating the office like a kitchen with desks. Stromberg continually calls his staff "Kinder," or "children," further blurring the line between Kinder, Computer, and Küche.

While Michael Scott also sometimes calls his American office a "family," his staff knows he's the kid brother, not the father, and that if there's to be any Kinder in their lives, they're going to have to get busy with one of their fellow prairie dogs, because really—who else are they likely to meet, given the stretching parameters of the U.S. working day? We may still talk of "working like a dog," but the Russians lately have coined the expression, "to work like an American," reflecting our 24/7 on-call mentality. These days, for Americans, "home office" is not just a place, it's a state of mind. And it's perfectly reflected by our version of this global sitcom—in which work is ostensibly cared about (though skimped on), romantic tension simmers on numerous fronts, and the whole enterprise is gently inflated by a mood of eventual, possible progress in work and love—like a bowl of dough that could have used a little more yeast but is doing its best to rise. Vive la différence.

posted by Dan at 02:47 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Oh, Hugo....

So Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and George W. Bush walk into a UN General Assembly.... wait, that's not a joke, it actually happened.

Hugo gave a funny speech at the UN today -- that Noam Chomsky opening was a killer!

Here's the one part of the speech that actually made sense:

I don't think anybody in this room could defend the system. Let's accept -- let's be honest. The U.N. system, born after the Second World War, collapsed. It's worthless.

Oh, yes, it's good to bring us together once a year, see each other, make statements and prepare all kinds of long documents, and listen to good speeches, like Abel's (ph) yesterday, or President Mullah's (ph). Yes, it's good for that.

And there are a lot of speeches, and we've heard lots from the president of Sri Lanka, for instance, and the president of Chile.

But we, the assembly, have been turned into a merely deliberative organ. We have no power, no power to make any impact on the terrible situation in the world.

Readers are heartily encouraged to postulate what would happen if the UN General Assembly was actually given any real power.

UPDATE: CBS News reports on one interesting aftereffect of Chavez's tirade:

It’s rare to hear Congressional Democrats coming to the rescue of President George W. Bush. But a day after Venezuela's president called Mr. Bush a "devil" in front of the United Nations General Assembly, several prominent Bush critics are siding with the White House.

Rep. Charles Rangel – the Democrat who represents the New York City neighborhood that Hugo Chavez visited Thursday – took a swipe at the Venezuelan President for his behavior at the U.N.

Rangel said he wants to make it clear to the Venezuelan President that his comments on Wednesday were inappropriate and the American people are offended by his criticism of President Bush.

"I just want to make it abundantly clear to Hugo Chavez or any other president - don't come to the United States and think because we have problems with our president that any foreigner can come to our country and not think that Americans do not feel offended when you offend our Chief of State," Rangel said.

"Any demeaning public attack against him is viewed by Republicans and Democrats, and all Americans, as an attack on all of us," Rangel said.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who spent most of the day criticizing the Bush administration's economic and environmental policies, told reporters that Chavez's performance at the U.N. "demeaned" himself and the his nation.

"He fancies himself as a modern day Simon Bolivar, but all he is an everyday thug," Pelosi said.

If this keeps up, I propose that Chavez be given a chance to vent at the UN every week!

posted by Dan at 11:10 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The worst form of government in Thailand and Hungary

It's strictly a coincidence that third-wave democratic governments in Hungary and Thailand are having a spot of trouble today. There does seem to be a loose commonality in the underlying sources of the instability, however.

Why the attempted coup in Thailand? The BBC has a good backgrounder:

Thailand's latest political crisis traces its roots back to January when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sold his family's stake in the telecoms firm Shin Corp.
The move angered many, mainly urban Thais, who complained the family avoided paying tax and had passed control of an important national asset to Singaporean investors.

It led to mass protests and calls for the resignation of the prime minister, who was already under pressure over his handling of a Muslim insurgency in the south and his extensive control over the media.

In a bid to tackle the crisis, and to show he still had widespread public support despite regular massive street protests in Bangkok, Mr Thaksin dissolved parliament in February and called a snap election for April.

Mr Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party won 57% of the vote in the April election, but millions of Thais cast protest votes and the opposition refused to take part.

After weeks of limbo, Thailand's highly-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej called the situation a "mess" and ordered the courts to sort it out.

The election result was ruled invalid by the Constitutional Court and a new date was set for later this year.

As for the situation now, the BBC also reports that: An army-owned TV station is showing images of the royal family and songs linked in the past with military coups." To which I must say -- there are songs associated with military coups???

As for Hungary, here's the Associated Press explanation:

Protesters clashed with police and stormed the headquarters of Hungarian state television early Tuesday in an explosion of anger over a leaked recording of the prime minister admitting his government had "lied morning, evening and night" about the economy.

Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said the overnight riots were "the longest and darkest night" for the country since the end of communism in 1989. About 150 people were injured, including 102 police officers, one of whom suffered serious head injuries, officials said....

The outpouring of rage may be linked to austerity measures Gyurcsany's Socialist-led coalition has implemented in order to rein in a state budget deficit expected to surpass 10 percent of gross domestic product this year — the largest in the European Union.

The government has raised taxes and announced plans to lay off scores of state employees, and introduce direct fees in the health sector and tuition for most university students.

Until the scandal suddenly broke this weekend, the 45-year-old Gyurcsany had been the Socialist Party's golden boy — a youthful, charismatic leader promising to lead his nation to the prosperity as a full EU member.

His coalition with the Alliance of Free Democrats in April became the first Hungarian government to win re-election since the return to democracy in 1990.

The violence came after a mainly peaceful protest outside parliament attended by several thousand people began late Sunday, when a recording made in May was leaked to local media in which Gyurcsany admitted to repeatedly having lied to the country about the true state of the Hungarian economy to win April's elections.

In both countries, the formal electoral rules and laws seem incapable of dealing with shady behavior by duly elected officials.

A mark against democracy? Well, yes, but only until one considers Winston Churchill's thoughts on the matter.

posted by Dan at 01:13 PM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Incompetence or impossibility in Iraq?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran is coming out with a book on the CPA's experiences in Iraq called Imperial Life in the Emerald City. For a taste, check out Chandrasekaran's excerpt in Sunday's Washington Post, as well as his Q&A at today. He opens the latter by stating the following:

I believe that the Coalition Provisional Authority -- the U.S. occupation government in Iraq from April 2003 to June 2004 -- had a rare opportunity to resuscitate Iraq. It's hard to remember now, but back then the Iraqis were turly happy to be liberated from Saddam's government. They were eager for American help to reconstruct their country and they wanted U.S. forces to help establish order. But the CPA, in my view, squandered that goodwill by failing to bring the necessary resources to bear to rebuild Iraq and by not listening to what the Iraqis wanted -- or needed -- in terms of a postwar government. By sending, as I've written, the loyal and the willing over the best and the brightest, we hobbled our efforts there.
This is a theme I've touched on in the past (full disclosure: Chandrasekaran contacted me during the drafting of his book to get in touch with my sources at CPA, and I briefly acted as a go-between).

It also dredges up what will be an age-old debate -- was the failure in Iraq preordained because the mission was hopeless, or was it becaused the administration bungled the execution? Last year, Matthew Yglesias and Sam Rosenfeld argued that failure was preordained.

Yesterday Jonathan Chait took the incompetence position in the Los Angeles Times:

The argument that the Iraq war had no chance to succeed has an undeniable surface appeal. Things are going so badly there that it's hard to imagine how it could have turned out differently.

But the more we learn about the war's conduct, the more we learn that the administration didn't just make the normal sorts of mistakes that inevitably occur in wartime; it was almost criminally negligent. The Bush administration literally refused to do any planning for the occupation. They invaded before all the available troops were in place, staffed the Coalition Provisional Authority with underqualified hacks vetted solely on the basis of ideological loyalty and rashly disbanded the Iraqi army, which could have provided some early order.

One might counter that none of this was really decisive because Iraq is so deeply riven with sectarian feuds that brutal fighting between Sunnis and Shiites was inevitable. But this misunderstands a lot about human behavior. When the authority of government dissolves, people retreat to the safety of tribal solidarity, and under such conditions they can do savage things of which they never thought themselves capable. Once the expectation of chaos sets in, it can spiral out of control.

Yglesias responds here and here. One excerpt:
Let me just note that this is an extremely weak claim being made on behalf of the underlying policy concept. It "wasn't necessarily doomed" though it was bound to be "extremely difficult."

I'd be interested in seeing someone who thinks along these lines venture some vague probabalistic estimates. It wasn't "necessarily doomed" but was it likely to succeed? Or are we merely claiming that there was some chance of success? Ten percent? One percent? And how does that feed into policy analysis? Obviously, you wouldn't want to try and introduce a bogus false precision to these kind of calculations. Still, it seems to be that before launching a war of choice, you're going to want some better odds of success than "not necessarily doomed."

If you read what I've written on this subject, I obviously take the incompetence position -- Iraq could have gone much, much better.

To answer Matt's question, however, it seems to be that had the Bush administration:

a) Not been committed to proving Rumsfeld's thesis about warfighting, and thus had significantly more troops on the ground in the spring o 2003;

b) Staffed CPA based on meritocratic criteria as well as a conviction in having the mission succeed; and

c) Not disbanded the army

Then I'd say the odds of Iraq being at least as stable and open as, say, Ukraine would have been better than 50/50.

That said, I close with what I wrote two years ago:

[W]e can't rewind history and replay Iraq with better implementation. It is impossible to say with absolute certainty that the flaw lay with the idea or the implementation. I clearly think it's the implementation, but I will gladly concede that there are decent arguments out there that the idea itself was wrong as well.
Tell me, dear readers -- was it the idea or the implementation?

posted by Dan at 11:03 PM | Comments (51) | Trackbacks (0)

Confusing headline of the day
"Al-Qaeda threatens jihad over Pope's remarks," Times of London, September 18, 2006
Someone get Al Qaeda a dictionary and show them the word "redundant."
posted by Dan at 09:23 AM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Damn that cheap European labor force!!

The Financial Times' Francesco Guerrera and Alan Beattie report on a new trend in offshoring:

Multinational companies are favouring Europe over Asia when expanding abroad – a sign that they want to be close to customers and suppliers rather than simply tap into cheap labour and plants, according to a new study of outward investment.

The surprising findings of the survey by IBM’s consulting arm, to be released on Monday, suggest that the recent boom in outsourcing of manufacturing and services to emerging markets such as China and India may be abating.

At the same time, western Europe, led by the UK and France, is regaining an edge in high-value areas such as research and development, putting pressure on developing economies to raise the skills and education levels of their workforce.

“The recent recovery in the global economy has made companies more interested in being close to their markets, suppliers and decision-makers rather than just looking for a low-cost base,” said Roel Spee, Europe’s leader for IBM’s global location unit.

The survey – the only study that looks at all announced foreign direct investment (FDI) by companies around the world – found that Europe attracted 39 per cent of all new plants and projects in 2005, with Asia-Pacific receiving 31 per cent and North America 18 per cent. In 2004, Europe and Asia were tied at 35 per cent each.

The results show that globalisation and the increase in capital and trade flows are enabling companies to exploit the competition between regions to reap the biggest rewards for their investments....

The UK was Europe’s biggest recipient of inward investment, especially in the research and development field, where it accounted for more than a quarter of all projects launched in the region last year, followed by France with 19 per cent.

posted by Dan at 09:01 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Will there be a TAFTA?

This week the Economist has an excellent survey by Pam Woodall of the global economy, and the increasingly powerful effects that the developing world are exerting on prices, wages, and interest rates:

Last year the combined output of emerging economies reached an important milestone: it accounted for more than half of total world GDP (measured at purchasing-power parity). This means that the rich countries no longer dominate the global economy. The developing countries also have a far greater influence on the performance of the rich economies than is generally realised. Emerging economies are driving global growth and having a big impact on developed countries' inflation, interest rates, wages and profits. As these newcomers become more integrated into the global economy and their incomes catch up with the rich countries, they will provide the biggest boost to the world economy since the industrial revolution....

In particular, the new ascendancy of the emerging economies has changed the relative returns to labour and capital. Because these economies' global integration has made labour more abundant, workers in developed countries have lost some of their bargaining power, which has put downward pressure on real wages. Workers' share of national income in those countries has fallen to its lowest level for decades, whereas the share of profits has surged. It seems that Western workers are not getting their full share of the fruits of globalisation. This is true not just for the lowest-skilled ones but increasingly also for more highly qualified ones in, say, accountancy and computer programming.

If wages continue to disappoint, there could be a backlash from workers and demands for protection from low-cost competition. But countries that try to protect jobs and wages through import barriers or restrictions on offshoring will only hasten their relative decline. The challenge for governments in advanced economies is to find ways to spread the benefits of globalisation more fairly without reducing the size of those gains.

Be sure to check out the podcast interview with Woodall, conducted by the dulcet tones of one Megan McArdle. Woodall thinks what's happening now will be "bigger than the industrial revolution."

One obvious implication to draw from the survey is that the relative (though not absolute) economic power of the US and EU will decline over time.

How will Washington and Brussels respond? The Financial Times' Bertrand Benoit offers one intriguing answer:

Spurred by concern about China’s growing economic might, Germany is considering a plan for a free-trade zone between Europe and the US.

A senior aide to Angela Merkel said the chancellor was “interested” in promoting the idea as long as such a zone did not create “a fortress” but rather “a tool” to encourage free trade globally, “which she is persuaded is a condition of Germany’s future prosperity”....

News that the free trade zone, last pursued by Sir Leon Brittan, when European trade commissioner in 1998, is being debated in the German chancellery testifies to the rapprochement between Washington and Berlin since Ms Merkel’s election last November.

This convergence of views was underlined this week when Wen Jiabao, Chinese premier, was politely chided by Ms Merkel for China’s poor human rights record and recent restrictions on foreign news agencies, during an official visit to Berlin....

Ms Merkel’s aide said it was “far too early” to tell whether the project of a transatlantic free-trade zone would be part of Germany’s priorities when it assumes the six-month presidency of the European Union and chairs the G8 group of leading industrial nations from January.

Two of Ms Merkel’s most senior advisers, Jens Weidmann on economic policy and Christoph Heusgen on foreign policy, have warned her the initiative could be construed as protectionism.

Yet the notion has struck a chord with Ms Merkel, who has often called for “a global framework of rules” – minimum social, environmental and ethical standards – to prevent competition from sophisticated yet authoritarian low-wage economies eroding western achievements in these domains.

“The west needs to pull together,” Gabor Steingart, Berlin bureau chief for the Spiegel weekly, told the FT yesterday. His book, World-War for Prosperity, a warning about the dangers of globalisation published this week, is credited with influencing the debate in the chancellery.

“What Nato did for the west under the cold war, Tafta (Transatlantic free-trade area) can do in the current battle.”

When I was in Berlin this summer I met with a few Bundestag and industry officials who were quite keen on the idea. The fact that Merkel is considering this suggests that the idea has gotten more traction in recent months.

There are many reasons to believe that TAFTA will never get off the ground. What Europe thinks should go into a free trade agreement is a bit more modest than what the U.S. thinks should go into one. I simply can't see agriculture included into any TAFTA. I can't imagine that France would ever let it go forward. Anti-Americanism on the continent could be enough to scotch it.

And yet, the idea is very intriguing. Even if it takes ten years to negotiate, the combined weight of a TAFTA in terms of both market size and rule-setting behavior would be formidable.


posted by Dan at 02:21 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)